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In India, Beatles' refuge falls into disrepair

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's ashram is abandoned, but could become a home for street children.

RISHIKESH, India - With their long hair and necklaces of Indian marigolds, the Beatles journeyed to this city in the foothills of the Himalayas in the late 1960s. They were at the height of their fame, but they came to escape material wealth and the pressures of celebrity.

Their destination: an ashram, where they would study with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of Transcendental Meditation.

Today, nearly 40 years later, the guru's former campus is still known as the Beatles' ashram, a once-whimsical Hobbiton of 15 acres dotted with cozy igloolike huts and vegetarian food halls. It was here, along the cliffs overlooking the Ganges River, that the Fab Four hunkered down in the spring of 1968 to compose as many as 48 songs, including "Revolution," "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," and "Blackbird."

Tourists and dreadlocked adventurers in Birkenstocks still show up in this self-proclaimed "yoga capital of the world." They come in search of enlightenment and stress relief, and they find hotels offering ayurvedic "third eye" massages, chakra rebalancing, and the chance to visit the ashram where the Beatles once slept.

But many visitors are surprised to find that the ashram, now owned by the government, is closed and dilapidated, overgrown with weeds and slowly being destroyed by poor villagers who loot the teak furnishings and sell them for firewood.

There is, however, a new vision for the ashram.

Maggie O'Hara, a former Hollywood actress who has lived in India running schools for the poor for the last 30 years, has submitted a plan to the government to turn the ashram into a home and school for 2,500 street children from New Delhi, about 115 miles away. She would also open a job training and rehabilitation center for 500 women.

Ten of the 500 rooms would be used as an eco-hotel, where guests could volunteer to work with the children or simply relax in the same ashram where John Lennon searched for the meaning of life and George Harrison worked to perfect his sitar playing.

The campus had been vacant for 12 years when the authorities who oversaw the ashram abandoned it. The government then took it over, but O'Hara said the property has been neglected. She sees her plan as a way to change that.

"Helping India's children would be in the spirit of what the Beatles were in India searching for: generosity, optimism, kindness," said O'Hara, who is also known here by her Indian name, Prabhavati Dwabha. "It's a terrible shame that the Beatles' ashram is lying in waste."

So far, the government has been unresponsive to the plan. O'Hara said she is frustrated with the Indian bureaucracy and fears that the project might never come to fruition.

O'Hara said the government should capitalize on the Beatles' legacy and use the ashram to help the country's poor children. According to the government, 170 million children, or 40 percent of India's youth, "are in need," meaning they require help obtaining food, shelter and clothing.

"We are saying that the idea to bundle away the poor is so cruel. And at the same time, we are offering a plan to help several thousand women and children," O'Hara said, adding that she has raised more than $1 million for her plans for the ashram. The government "won't have to spend a single rupee," she said.

The project could be good for Rishikesh. At dawn, on the dusty platform of the city's nearest train station, homeless mothers awake near the garbage-strewn tracks just as wealthy Indian and foreign tourists arrive.

Some of the most desperate mothers can be seen cutting their toddlers' foreheads until they bleed. They then push the wobbling children to panhandle from Western tourists, who arrive on the platforms with yoga bags and end up in tears before their first relaxation stretches.

The ashram has, at least symbolically, retained an important role in the annals of rock-and-roll history and 1960s counterculture.

The Beatles' time in Rishikesh is often described as one of their happiest and most creative periods. They ate communally and relaxed, free from the constant watch of the media. They learned the maharishi's philosophy that repeating a word, or mantra, helps the body relax.

But things quickly grew troubled for the band, the maharishi and the ashram.

First, Ringo Starr left early, citing the irritation of bugs, heat and spicy vegetarian food. The band became disillusioned with the maharishi, who allegedly started asking them for millions of dollars and was seen hitting aggressively on the women they traveled with.

And a year and a half later, the Beatles announced they were breaking up.